When it comes to reading the Bible, asking good questions is essential. In a very real sense the quality of the questions you ask determines what you get out of the text and your ability to apply it to your life. But we need to make sure we are asking the right kinds of questions.
So what kind of questions is the Bible intended to answer? The Bible is first and foremost a story about God displaying his glory through the creation and redemption of humanity. It makes sense, then, that the Bible is designed to answer questions connected to this central theme. Jesus confirms this dual focus on God and humanity. When asked what the greatest commandment was, he replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt 22:37). But Jesus wasn’t done. He continued, “And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:39). Love God. Love others. This is the heart of what God wants from his people.
The challenge, then, is to ask questions that help us see these realities when we read the Bible. If that seems overwhelming, don’t worry! By asking four foundational questions, we can make sure we are asking the kind of questions that God designed the Bible to answer.
What Do We Learn About God?
God is the main character of the Bible, the hero of the story. So it makes sense that the first question we ask is what we learn about him. Scripture reveals who God is in at least three different ways.
First, it shows us God’s character, or his attributes. Sometimes the Bible states these directly (Rev 4:8), while at other times you have to infer it from the passage (1 Kgs 22:1–40).
Second, Scripture reveals who God is by showing us his conduct. In other words, we see God doing things in a passage that show us who he is. Take, for example, Psalm 23, which lists several things that God does for his people as our shepherd: leads, restores, comforts, prepares, anoints.
Third, the Bible reveals who God is by showing us his concerns. In passages like Exodus 22:21–24 God commands his people not to mistreat the sojourner, the widow or the orphan. God makes it clear that he values and protects the marginalized, and expects his people to do the same.
As you look for what a passage teaches about God, be sure to pay attention to all three persons of the Trinity. Sometimes a passage will even specifically mention all three persons (Matt 28:18–20; 2 Cor 13:14).
What Do We Learn About People?
As the pinnacle of God’s creation, human beings are at the center of God’s purposes for creation. The Bible has a lot to say about people. So when it comes to learning what a passage teaches us about humanity, we can approach that from three different angles.
The first angle is looking in the text for aspects of what it means to be created in the image of God. What longings or desires does the passage reveal that are expressions of being made in the image of God? A good example is Hannah, the barren wife of Elkanah, who longed to have a child (1 Sam 1:1–20).
Of course, sin regularly distorts our God-given desires and twists them in sinful directions and expressions. So the second angle to discover what a passage reveals about humanity is to look for the fallen condition(s) it exposes. The fallen condition is the sinful beliefs, attitudes, feelings, actions or tendencies mentioned or implied in the text. In some passages the fallen condition is impossible to miss. Take, for example, Proverbs 6:16–19, which explicitly lists “six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him.” Other times, however, you may have to read between the lines to discover the fallen condition.
The third angle to get at what a passage reveals about humanity is to look for what our lives should look like as redeemed people. In Acts 2:42–47 Luke describes how the earliest believers lived out their faith in Jesus. This snapshot helps us see how the gospel transforms people to live as redeemed individuals as well as a redeemed community.
What Do We Learn About Relating to God?
Loving God with our whole being expresses itself in a variety of ways. So when we read the Bible we want to pay attention to how we should relate to God. A good starting point is to consider these three common ways we should respond to who God is and who we are.
The first is considering what we should praise God for. For example, in 1 Peter 1:3-5 Peter lists in rapid fire fashion a number of things about what God has done for us in Christ and the benefits we receive from it, such as: we are born again; we have a living hope; we have an inheritance; we are guarded by God’s power. All of these are reasons to praise him.
Second, we should also ask what sin we need to confess and repent of. Confession means agreeing with God about our sin and acknowledging it to him. Repentance is turning away from our sin and taking tangible steps to pursue change in our lives. Confession and repentance do not earn us favor before God. Based on what Jesus has done we have already been declared not guilty before God. But sin does break our fellowship with God, and confession and repentance are the way that we restore our fellowship with God.
Finally, we should ask what gospel promises I need to believe. This question helps us get at how God, through the gospel, has dealt with our fallen condition. A helpful example is Ephesians 4:22–24, where Paul commands believers to turn from their old way of life before they knew Christ because of what God has done for them in Christ.
What Do We Learn About Relating to Others?
God created us to be in community with one another. When he saves us from our sins, he makes us part of the body of Christ. Jesus commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves. So let’s consider what this looks like from three different perspectives.
First, consider what the passage teaches about living and interacting rightly with others. On a daily basis we interact with a variety of different people—family, friends, roommates, coworkers, classmates, neighbors, fellow believers, non-Christians, etc. The Bible has a lot to say about how we should relate to those around us. Following Jesus requires us to interact wisely with those around us. The Bible is the place for us to learn how to do that.
A second helpful angle is to consider what the passage teaches about reconciling with other people. Conflict in a fallen world is inevitable. As Christians we are called to “live peaceably with all” if possible (Rom 12:18).
Lastly, reflect on what the passage teaches about loving, serving and caring for others. Second Samuel 9:1–13 tells the story of David summoning Mephibosheth to appear before him. As a grandson of Saul, the previous king, Mephibosheth likely expected to be executed, since ancient kings often eliminated any potential rivals to their thrones. Yet instead of killing him, David showed kindness to him. He restored his family’s land to Mephibosheth and even invited him to eat at David’s table like one of his own sons. What a beautiful picture of what it means to love and serve others well!
Remember—the ultimate goal of reading the Bible is to have our lives transformed by God so we resemble our Lord Jesus. Asking these four foundational questions focuses our attention on the main message of the Bible, and prepares us to apply biblical truths to our lives in meaningful ways. Why not try them out today?